How to Build School Culture

Derrick Burress
Derrick Burress
High School Principal; M.S. in Education
Male teacher talking to female student in a school hallway.

School leaders are faced with many challenges in today’s educational climate and culture. We are making small and large decisions that directly impact our students, team, and greater community. Are our students meeting their educational goals? How do we keep our students safe from events beyond our control? Are we meeting local, regional, and national standards? Are we setting our students up to be successful in a world that expects 18-year-old students to be college and career ready? These are just a few of the stressors we must navigate daily.

Fortunately, if school leaders have a guiding set of principles or ethics in place, decision making can get significantly easier. Creating and then cultivating a positive school culture can foster an environment where everyone – students, staff, and administration – are all working toward the same goal and with the same vision. Having a school culture can make decisions easier, can make goals more attainable, and can make the school itself feel like home.

What is School Culture?

School culture is the atmosphere in which we work. But school culture is more than just the building or campus; it’s how people feel when they are in your school. Have you ever walked into a school and felt energized and inspired right away? That’s a positive school culture in action. Or perhaps you’ve walked into a school where everything felt drab, dull, and grouchy; that’s a negative school culture, and it can make everyone who enters the building feel the same way.

Multiple factors can make or break school culture, including the history and community. Staff, instructors, administrators, students, parents, and other stakeholders can all contribute to school culture. It takes everyone’s support to create a school culture that will be positive, encouraging, and rooted in a growth mindset.

School culture can be created, nurtured, and cultivated throughout a school year and beyond. It should be something that is positive, lifting up the staff and students in your school. Unfortunately, when it is not managed well, school culture can also be negative and toxic. In this case, it creates an environment that demeans and makes others feel less than throughout their days at work and in school. For the purpose of this writing, we will focus on the positive and look to a growth mindset of school culture.

The Importance of School Culture and Climate

The goal of an effective school culture should be that when people come to work they know what to expect, have school wide goals that everyone can work toward, find purpose in their role, and know that what they are doing makes a difference in the lives of those around them.

The business manager at my school said something to me several years ago that has stuck with me as a school leader. She asked what brings me “job joy”? I found this to be a profound two-word phrase. The idea of “job joy” has been something that I have since been preaching to my staff. To me, “job joy” is simply loving what you do. Certainly, you will have hard seasons where nothing seems easy, but your joy for your role keeps you motivated to give your best to your school.

Creating a joyful and positive school culture can positively impact your school through higher staff retention or recruitment rates, enthusiastic students, more productive partnerships with the greater community, and even more trust from parents. One thing is certain: a positive school culture will benefit everyone.

Having a positive outlook about your position, your school, and your role as a change agent is paramount as you build school culture. The best way to begin? Lead with joy and help others do the same.

How to Build a Positive School Culture

Building school culture takes time, energy, and effort. It also begins with creating an environment of teamwork and collaboration throughout the entire building. Staff members need to know that they are part of a team. Decisions should never be made with a completely top-down approach. The same goes for developing a school culture.

While the leadership team may internally set the tone for the school culture, its success hinges on the buy-in of the staff. If the staff does not believe in the school culture, the culture (and the benefits) will never take root. You can begin developing a positive and joyful school culture by getting your staff involved as much as possible. After all, they are the ones in the classrooms and hallways – they know the current culture of the school and have excellent ideas on how to refine and reframe it to meet the end goal.

If you are a new leader to your school, don’t expect to come into your new role and completely revamp the school culture immediately. Change takes time. Staff need to get to know who you are as a leader and person before they will get behind you to become real agents of change in a school environment. Instead, seek to learn more about the current culture and the key players who could make the biggest positive impact. During your time, be transparent and clear with your what, your why, and your how so that your new team sees your dedication to positivity.

If you have been a leader in your school for a while and are ready to finally make a step in the direction of developing a positive school culture, get your team involved right away. Create an environment for collaboration and get your staff involved with the end result and goal. Then, use your new school culture goals as the guiding point in your decision-making process throughout the day. For example, when creating a strategic plan for your district, updating curricula, or creating a new e-Learning process, determine how you can incorporate your school culture into the final choices.

It takes time, energy, and effort to actively change a school culture. It’s not easy, but our jobs never are. Stay the course and keep your ultimate goal of a joyful school culture top of mind during your time with students, staff, parents, and partners. You’ll begin to see sure signs the culture is changing and blossoming sooner than you may think.

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